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While seeming to vanish, class digs deeper - click opera — LiveJournal
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Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 12:01 pm
While seeming to vanish, class digs deeper

In my quotes for AFP about the Last King of Pop, I outlined the idea that social networking software might be joining with increasing Gini-gaps and the collapse of postmodernism's flattening of high and low culture to produce a new social stratification, or, rather, a return to a kind of social stratification not seen since the 1960s:

"I think we're seeing the re-appearance of class and caste. Michael Jackson's fame comes from a cultural period -- postmodern global consumerism -- when the distinction between high and low collapsed. When Pierre Bourdieu surveyed French cultural tastes in the 1960s, he found that blue collar and white collar workers had completely different cultures -- classical music for the brain workers, cheap pop for the hand workers. A few decades later, postmodern consumer culture had leveled that, at least superficially: now, people with college degrees spoke about Michael Jackson "intelligently", people from lower class backgrounds spoke about him "passionately". But everybody spoke about him. Now that postmodernism is coming to an end, and now that narrowcasting and social networking limit our encounters with "the class other", I think we'll see different classes embracing different cultures again. Things will settle back into the kind of cultural landscape Bourdieu described in "Distinction"."

Another way to put this is to say that the only kings to exist in the future will be actual blue-blood kings (since monarchy seems to show no sign of going away) rather than self-proclaimed meritocratic entertainment world kings whose pomp, though it might have annoyed some, was also a way to say "anybody, from any background, can become a king". Calling yourself "the king of pop" was therefore, in a sense, a statement about social mobility, and a deconstruction of the blood claims of the aristocracy.

Yesterday I happened to be reading a Guardian Media article about -- of all things -- Graham Norton, the camp BBC host. The article quoted BBC1 controller Jay Hunt calling a Norton show "popular with C2DE viewers who we traditionally struggle to bring to the channel". The journalist (Stuart Jeffries) added "I'm not actually sure what a C2DE viewer is".

Since I wasn't sure either, I looked the term up. The NRS social grade scale was devised in the 1930s and describes the British class system (except for aristocrats, mysteriously absent) in a coded way. The letters are assigned according to the occupation of the principal breadwinner of a household (ah, that's why the aristocrats aren't there!):

A = Upper Middle Class: Higher managerial, administrative or professional (doctor, solicitor, barrister, accountant, company director)
B = Middle Class: Intermediate managerial, administrative or professional (teacher, nurse, police officer, probation officer, librarian, middle manager)
C1 = Lower Middle Class: Supervisory or clerical and junior managerial, administrative or professional (junior manager, student, clerical/office workers, supervisors)
C2 = Skilled Working Class: Skilled manual workers (foreman, agricultural worker, plumber, bricklayer)
D = Working Class: Semi and unskilled manual workers (manual workers, shop worker, fisherman, apprentices)
E = Those at the lowest levels of subsistence: Casual or lowest grade workers, pensioners and others who depend on the state for their income (casual labourers, state pensioners)




These categories can still describe the British class system fairly well -- and are still widely used by media and marketing people, despite the advent of rival systems from potato graphics to Mosaic geodemographics. You can use the NRS system to say things like "80% of Auto Trader readers are made up of social grade bracket B, C1 and C2" or "87% of Society Guardian readers are social grade ABC1 and 86% are educated to degree level or higher", and advertisers will know exactly who they have lined up in their sights. There's a fairly strong link between your NRS ranking and your cultural consumption patterns: "57% of Independent readers are deemed A or B on the NRS social grade, while just 11% of Sun readers, 14% of Daily Mirror readers, and 29% of Daily Mail and Daily Express readers occupy these socio-economic spaces," for instance.



But there's been a shift in the actual spread of the British population across the grid. The balance between ABC1s (middle class, white collar, broadsheet-reading) and C2DEs (working class, blue collar, tabloid-reading) has altered. The majority of British people are now ABC1s, whereas in the 1970s the middle classes would have been outweighed by C2DEs. This has happened through what we might call the "internationalisation of labour"; Britain doesn't really manufacture any more, so its working class has, in a sense, been outsourced to China (picture millions of Chinese in flat caps pigeon-fancying, supporting United, and watching Benny Hill). So it isn't so much that class has disappeared as that it's been internationalised. You have to travel a long way to see the people who smelt your steel now. They've been "hidden on the far side of the world".

Another reason that class has become less visible even as it's become more determinant is social networking. The internet has allowed us to filter our contact with others to such an extent that we're seldom likely to encounter anyone who thinks or feels significantly differently online -- unless we consciously seek them out. And why would we do that? To "challenge our own values"? Because "it's good for us"?



But perhaps the ultimate class gap today is between people who are and people who aren't on the internet. If you have internet access, you're part of a 15% global elite. Don't expect to encounter the other 85% online, your highness. They ain't here.

47CommentReply

autopope
autopope
Autopope
Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 10:32 am (UTC)

Minor nit (although it doesn't fundamentally undermine your thesis): the source you cite for that "15% global elite" comment was last updated in March 2006, and showed growth in the five years preceding it of 183%. So by now, that 15% is probably going to be somewhere in the 20-25% range, if not higher -- China has been coming on-line at a ferocious pace this decade, and IIRC now has more internet users than the USA or the EU.

Edited at 2009-07-18 10:33 am (UTC)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 10:35 am (UTC)

That's true, it is probably closer to 20%. But the page I link does say:

"Interesting to note that China, seen by most analysts as a big growth market for Web technologies, has an Internet penetration of only 8.5%. Considering that great parts of China are rural, this isn't overly surprising."


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pulled-up.blogspot.com
pulled-up.blogspot.com
Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 10:44 am (UTC)

To respond to your last point. My sister gave me a link to an article the other day about the homeless in San Francisco toting laptops and using internet cafes. Some have said that they feel "like everyone else" when they are online. That they are no longer socially excluded.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124363359881267523.html

I also read a thread on Feministing talking about the gap between the class of people who use Myspace and that of people who use Facebook, which quoted some white teenagers calling Myspace "ghetto" and that raised all kinds of hell in the comments section.

http://www.feministing.com/archives/016430.html


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 11:00 am (UTC)

I wonder if Web 2.0 services go from being "classy" to "crass" within a very short timeframe -- maybe a couple of years?

When I wrote for Wired, the piece they loved the most -- they even increased my salary because of it! -- was the one telling people (ahead of the curve; it's all a matter of timing) to delete their MySpace pages!


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krskrft
krskrft
Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 02:46 pm (UTC)

Momus-

You say that MJ was part of a generation in which the field was leveled, in which anybody could be a "king." But are you sure he actually proved this, or do you really mean to say that he assisted in the creation of an illusion that such a thing could happen? Because I'm not sure that this idea of a "postmodern collapse of high and low" had any actual bearing on real life conditions. It's more likely that what we're seeing is the burning away of a fog, the emergence of an era in which the system of class and the structures of power are more transparent.

About the internet: I agree with you that people who cannot access the internet in essence "do not exist," as we come to spend more time online. But rather than use this as a critique of the internet, I'd turn it around and ask, since when did these people "exist" for us before the internet? Not ever, really. And what you're ignoring is that the internet, where it is available, does bring together a great many people who didn't exist for one another previously (I'm thinking about international, and even lingual, boundaries here).


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)

I think you're right, on the first point, about an entertainer like MJ just giving the illusion of a big global unity, or of the social mobility that allowed him to rise from a provincial city to "King of Pop". The ideology of equality of opportunity (as opposed to actual equality) is rife with this sort of tokenism.

And yes, the hidden people were hidden before the internet too. I'm not convinced that one encounters any sort of other on the internet. It's true that bulletin boards taught me that not everybody sees life the way I do (and how!), but I find now that befriending even a slightly different type of person on Facebook (I think of my approach to McGee last year) causes all sorts of trauma on both sides -- trauma that you somehow manage to contain during a real world relationship because of what might be called "the empathies of presence".

The internet is just a lot more specific about your worldview, it encourages you to give more away about yourself, and this "more" includes your cultural DNA, which potentially alienates allies. For instance, I can say "the empathies of presence" here and not feel like a wanker! Sitting with McGee in a cafe in 1988, there's no way I'd say, "You know, Alan, I'm really enjoying the empathies of presence we have going here!" You'd censor yourself, precisely to keep those empathies going.


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krskrft
krskrft
Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 03:11 pm (UTC)
Re: today's word:

I don't think the scale conforms very well to American social class. There aren't very well-drawn boundaries between "middle" and "working" class in America, for example.

A lot of people who do working class jobs (plumbers, electricians, contractors, etc) would consider themselves middle class in terms of how they can afford to live from year to year. In fact, it seems that much of the time, when Americans talk about their own class, they'll shift between "middle" and "working" depending on the tone they want to create. In this way, "middle" is often a stand-in for "normal" and "working" plays somewhere along the lines of "idiosyncratic," as in the case of growing up with divorced parents or something like that.

Realistically, I'd be inclined to agree that American class is as complicated as British class, when we're talking about objective living conditions. But Americans are far less likely to draw those distinctions themselves, preferring to lump themselves into the often interchangeable categories of "middle" or "working" class.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)

If anything, the more educated someone is the more likely they are to talk patronising bollocks on their blog or Twitter. Is it a case of "Well I studied the classics at Oxford, so that's all in the past for me. It's Big Brother from now on. The essence of the modern social experiment, in bikinis."


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 05:55 pm (UTC)

This seems to echo what I was saying in my Jackson quote about intelligent people talking about MJ "intelligently".

One thing that almost never gets highlighted, though, is how popular culture in the UK is made by Oxbridge executives. So basically you have Oxbridge types making this stuff and Oxbridge types commenting "ironically" on it, and non-Oxbridge types both performing on and watching it. A class model for a reality TV show in the UK would look like this:

A: Devisers and producers of show, corporate execs, public broadcasting commissioners.
B: Administrators, camera, sound and lighting crew, production staff, editors.
C1: Accountants, ancillary personnel.
C2: Carpenters building set, painters, janitors at TV centre
D: People appearing on show as themselves, people out there watching it.
E: Hungry homeless people watching show wrapped in blankets, noses pressed to the glass of department store windows.


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jdcasten
J.D. Casten
Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 09:35 pm (UTC)
Whose Story is Selling?

I think you’re right Momus, to connect class and media (from intellectual mediums to the mass media). Some of what has been seen as intellectual progress regarding class, from Millet and Van Gogh’s depicting poor working class folk instead of royalty; to Howard Zinn basically doing the same in his “A People’s History of the United States,” and US TVs turning to shows like “Good Times,” and “All in the Family,” on to the media presence of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jumal—all this trending for well over two hundred years, is about who gets to SELL their story in the media.

I tend to think all power is decentralized to the grass roots; even when obedient to concentrations of class power (financial, institutional, and in media)—as when Warhol notes that Coca-Cola levels the class “playing field”: everyone, rich and poor alike, wants a cheap coke. But, I think it’s hard to revolt against long ingrained habitual traditions—even if revolution from the ground up is always a possibility. Revolution (not necessarily political, but cultural as well) requires some sort of communication amongst “the masses”—and all too often the communication media are owned by an elite class who have no interest in fomenting their ownership demise. Power structures in “the west” are often as circular as they are in Iran, where more decentralized cell-phone and internet communication became an avenue for subversive communication.

But even here, at Click Opera, where we can speak somewhat freely (that is, without being paid), we mostly have to pay to reach an audience, by way of internet bills etc. If there is a disconnect between 75% of the world, and the internet; I suspect the divide between them and other communication mediums is even more stark. I think Foucault was right, that we should seek out the disempowered “others” to let them “speak”—but whose going to BUY their story?


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jdcasten
J.D. Casten
Sat, Jul. 18th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Whose Story is Selling?

I’m an advocate of soft power, and I didn’t want to make "revolution" sound too easy, even if people would want it:

http://cryptome.org/stoa-atpc.htm


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 09:44 am (UTC)

Nick

One thing I notice which may be connected to your theory. I think nepotism is becoming more and more shameless, more and more taken for granted and even celebrated, less and less something one might reasonably object to on grounds of merit. From George W Bush to Peaches Geldof and Paris Hilton the kids of successful people are being forced into our attention. Dynasticism is back big, it seems. Maybe it never went away, but it's now more overt, less ashamed.

Adam Bellow (son of Saul) has even written a book, "In Praise Of Nepotism".


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC)

Excellent article. Great job!


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ducking
ducking
Being a lazy bastard is a full-time job
Mon, Jul. 20th, 2009 07:20 am (UTC)

This is one of your best articles. Ever.


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wowmoney
wowmoney
Fri, Jul. 24th, 2009 03:06 am (UTC)
lotro gold

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